News! Americans put more trust in their president than in Israel
By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
February 10, 2014
By now, you’ve read that Aipac essentially pulled the rug out from under its Iran sanctions legislation. This was a new round of punitive measures designed to punish Iran for…well, I’m not exactly sure what. Iran had done almost everything the west had demanded of it in the past few months. It had signed an interim nuclear agreement calling for it to cease uranium enrichment at the 20% level and to suspend production of certain classes of centrifuges. In exchange, the west agreed to free $5 billion worth of assets that had been frozen in previous rounds of sanctions.
Though there’s been much chest-beating from neocons and Israel’s leaders seeking to depict the agreement as a win for Iran and loss for the west, most serious observers have been quite upbeat, while realizing that this is just the first stage of a long process. Among those who’ve been upbeat, naturally, has been the Obama administration. They rightly believed that the goal now should be to maintain confidence building measures leading into a second, far more serious round of negotiations that would lead to a permanent agreement.
Israel’s government hasn’t liked any of this and sought to dismiss the interim agreement as a sham and a victory by Iran over the west. As a result, it induced Aipac and the Israel lobby to devise a strategy that undercut Obama’s efforts. It essentially offered a truculent alternative that actually sabotaged the government efforts and sought to replace them with a confrontation strategy. The sanctions legislation, if it had passed, might likely have driven Iran from the international talks, which would’ve been precisely what Netanyahu wanted.
I don’t quite know how Obama pulled this off and what he had to promise to the Lobby’s Congressional allies to do it, but he succeeded in getting key Democrats like Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein to get in line with the administration. They announced publicly that while they supported sanctions (everyone apparently has to say this publicly though most know sanctions aren’t particularly successful) they didn’t see their usefulness at the present time. Therefore, they were going to withhold their support for the new round of sanctions.
A few days following this, Aipac made the extraordinary admission that it had failed. It couched its failure in terms that sounded diplomatic: since they based their efforts on a bi-partisan campaign and had lost Democratic support, they were going to pull their effort. This left the legislation’s sponsors, including Democrats like Chuck Schumer, holding the bag and wondering if they weren’t evidence of bi-partisan support, then what was? Frankly, I can’t ever remember Chuck Schumer saying “Et tu, Aipac.” It’s simply an incredible show to watch. Aipac is deserting its Congressional water-carriers. If it wants to backtrack on something it usually gives its supporters the grace to tell them in advance and allow them to announce that legislation was being pulled. Instead, Aipac announced it was dropping the ball and left its supporters to figure out how they would pick up the pieces. If you’re a staunch Israel Lobby ally, it has to leave you scratching your head wondering what’s going on.
All of this is a major victory for the Obama administration. It leaves its Iran policy initiative in a strong position (for now). Of course, the proof will be in the pudding and there must be future progress in order to justify the current level of confidence in the nuclear talks as a viable policy approach.
If this was the only Aipac defeat, then you could argue it was an anomaly. But the loss of the sanctions bill follows an equally painful defeat last September when the Obama administration appeared to be preparing to attack Syrian loyalist forces after an alleged chemical weapons attack. At that time, Obama activated the Lobby to call for Congressional support for war against Bashar al-Assad. But a funny thing happened on the way to war: Congress and the American people said: No. Nothing the Lobby could do could budge the skeptics from their doubt that a military assault was a wise tactic. As a result, Obama beat a hasty retreat and a face-saving compromise resulted in Russia and America forcing Syria to divest itself of its CW.
These two defeats for the Lobby are extraordinary. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the Lobby is dead. Not even close. The Lobby will return and flex its muscle once again on behalf of a hawkish Middle East approach. But political power moves in waves, like the tide. And it appears that the tide is gradually going out on the Lobby. It hasn’t played its cards well. Not to mention that the cards have been dealt by one of the most unpopular and extremist Israeli governments in decades, if not ever. That hasn’t helped the poker players in the Lobby.
On a parallel track, the Iranian government after the disastrous rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been playing its cards extraordinarily well. The capstone was an interview Foreign Minister Zarif gave at Davos in which he said that if Israel signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians, then eventually Iran would recognize Israel. After the Iranian leader made those radical remarks, you could tell that the Israeli hawks were waiting for the other shoe to drop. They expected that the Majlis would haul Zarif in for questioning and rake him over the coals. They hoped perhaps that Ayatollah Khamenei would make one of his thundering denunciations. But a funny thing happened: nothing. The earth didn’t open and swallow Zarif. The heavens didn’t rain down thunder and lightning. The foreign minister’s remarks weren’t repudiated. They still stand. Paul Pillar has written an excellent piece on this subject.
A Syrian girl (2nd L) and an Iranian girl hold signs outside the Rayburn House office building across from the US Capitol in Washington during a demonstration against US intervention in Syria on September 7, 2013. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/ AFP
I can’t help but wonder if yesterday’s announcement by the Iranian navy that it was sending a small convoy around the Horn of Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean with a destination of nearing U.S. territorial waters, might not be a somewhat weak attempt by the hawks to warn the U.S. that’s what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. On my Twitter feed, I joked that Iran was sending a naval flotilla to U.S. waters as a goodwill gesture to reciprocate all that hearty cheer the U.S. 5th fleet has brought to the Persian Gulf. While the Iranian navy isn’t about to pose a major threat to U.S. shipping lanes, it does tell us that what we seek to do to others can be done to us as well.
Netanyahu hasn’t raised his typical cavil claiming Zarif is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He hasn’t said anything. I get the sense that his jaw dropped and he simply doesn’t know how to respond. Israel’s policy toward Iran is premised on truculence and hostility. The moderate, accommodating approach leaves Israeli hawks agape. While the rest of the world has accepted the radical shift in Iran’s approach, it has taken Israel months to adapt. And it still hasn’t, nor can it as long as a radical right-wing government remains in power (which is highly likely for the foreseeable future). This could be another reason why the Lobby has been caught flat-footed so often in the past months.
Another astonishing development relates to the Lobby’s response to the series of amazing developments concerning BDS. Supporters of this anti-Occupation movement have been handed a gift on a golden platter by Sodastream and its ‘Global Brand ambassador,’ Scarlett Johansson (as hard as it may be to believe, she’s half-Jewish). Not to mention, having the SuperBowl timing thrown in, meant that scores of millions of Americans likely heard about BDS for the first time. Virtually every effort the company and the actress made to explain or defend themselves not only fell flat, but actually came across as tone-deaf, if not offensive. Simply, nothing worked.
Nothing worked because Israel is increasingly finding itself defending the indefensible on the world stage. Now, the EU is slowly turning the screws on Israeli settlement products, cutting into corporate profits from agricultural products exported from beyond the Green Line. Academic and other official cooperative ventures are being threatened as well. Europe was undoubtedly watching the Sodastream-Johansson imbroglio with interest, because it understands that until now BDS was a novelty in the U.S., while it had a more serious following across the Atlantic. You will see increasing boldness on the part of Europeans in invoking BDS in ways that will include doing real harm to Israel’s economy. Both John Kerry and Yair Lapid have warned of this eventuality. Kerry, for his trouble was labelled an anti-Semite. The radical Israeli right is still trying to figure out what to call Lapid!
Increasing calls for BDS from Europeans, in turn will raise the temperature on this side of the Atlantic. Even Tom Friedman wrote an op-ed, which calls BDS the “Third Intifada.” Of course, in his own inimitable way, Friedman somehow transforms BDS into a movement that will bring about his own preferred solution to the conflict, two states, when it has no such goal. Nevertheless, when Tom Friedman takes an activist strategy like BDS seriously, you have to say: “There’s something happenin’ here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Friedman?” Liberal Zionist, Gershom Gorenberg (who hates being called that, which is why I do) too has recognized a sea change. When the Lib Zios pretend they never hated BDS and railed against it, you know there’s trouble in pro-Israeland.
The only response the Lobby could muster to all this was a lame social media campaign by Josh Block’s pro-Israel stormtroopers at The Israel Project. They tried creating posters thanking Johansson for standing with Israel. I critiqued one particularly awful specimen here in a blog post. Aside from this, there’s been radio silence from all the usual Lobby suspects: the ADL, Aipac, AJC. Cat got their tongue? It makes you wonder what’s going on. Have they been thrown back on their tushes so hard they simply don’t know how to respond?
When Israel’s Likudists are down, they react fiercely. They won’t sit back and do nothing in the face of the BDS victories. They’ll come at the group and its adherents with redoubled fury. You can be sure the Mossad is preparing a honey pot in an attempt to ensnare Omar Barghouti (shades of Mordechai Vanunu and Julian Assange!). You can expect lots of mud and smears in the coming days, weeks, and months. But even this will fall flat. Israel, or at least this authoritarian, anti-democratic version of Israel has passed the shark.
The Illusion of AIPAC’s Invincibility
By Trita Parsi, Huffington Post
February 08, 2014
The defeat of AIPAC’s ill-advised push for new sanctions on Iran in the midst of successful negotiations is nothing short of historic. The powerful and hawkish pro-Israeli lobby’s defeats are rare and seldom public. But in the last year, it has suffered three major public setbacks, of which the sanctions defeat is the most important one.
AIPAC’s first defeat was over the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. In spite of a major campaign defaming Hagel, even accusing him of anti-Semitism, his nomination won approval in the Senate.
The second was over President Barack Obama’s push for military action against Syria. AIPAC announced that it would send hundreds of citizen lobbyists to the Hill to help secure approval for authorization of the use of force. But AIPAC and Obama were met with stiff resistance. The American people quickly mobilized and ferociously opposed the idea of yet another war in the Middle East. By some accounts, AIPAC failed to secure the support of a single member of Congress.
The third defeat was over new Iran sanctions. Now, AIPAC and the president were on opposite sides. The interim nuclear agreements from November of last year, explicitly stated that no new sanctions could be imposed. Yet, backed by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez, AIPAC pushed for new sanctions, arguing that it would enhance America’s negotiating position. The White House strongly disagreed, fearing that new sanctions would cause the collapse of diplomacy and make America look like the intransigent party. The international coalition the president had carefully put together against Iran would fall apart, and the US and Iran would once again find themselves on a path towards military confrontation.
But AIPAC insisted. Its immense lobbying activities secured 59 cosponsors for the bill, including 16 Democrats. Its aim was first to reach over 60 cosponsors to force the bill to the floor, and then more than 67 cosponsors to make it veto proof.
But 59 cosponsors turned it to be a magical ceiling AIPAC could not break through. Supporters of diplomacy put up an impressive defense of the negotiations policy, building both off of years of careful development of a pro-diplomacy constituency and coalition machinery as well as the grassroots muscle of more recent additions to the pro-diplomacy camp. (To get a hint of who these forces are, see the coalition letter against new sanctions signed by more than 70 organizations and organized by Win Without War, FCNL and my own organization, the National Iranian American Council.)
The watershed moment came when the White House raised the temperature and called out the sanctions supporters for increasing the likelihood of war.
“If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so,” Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.”
The prospect of coming across as “warmongers” incensed AIPAC and its supporters. But the White House knew exactly what it was doing. It was tapping into the only force that could stop AIPAC — the war wariness of the American public. The very same energy among the public that put a stop to the White House’s war plans for Syria, would now be used to put a stop to AIPAC’s efforts to sabotage the last best chance to avoid war with Iran.
The angry reaction of the sanctions supporters only confirmed the effectiveness of the White House’s strategy. AIPAC was put on the defensive and it could never explain how imposing diplomacy-killing sanctions actually was good for the negotiations. Chemi Shalev of the Israeli daily Haaretz put it best:
“Some of [AIPAC’s] supporters claimed that it was meant to strengthen Obama’s hand in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, when it was clear that they meant just the opposite: to weaken the President and to sabotage the talks. They couldn’t speak this truth outright, so they surrounded it, as Churchill once said, with a bodyguard of lies.”
AIPAC finally threw in the towel on new sanctions last Thursday. The defeat was an undeniable fact.
These three defeats show the importance of mobilization. Absent the work of the pro-diplomacy coalition, both the careful groundwork laid in the last few years as well as the intense mobilization in the last few weeks, it is not clear whether the White House could have won this fight — or if they even would have tried. The NSC spokesperson’s statement was clearly an attempt to activate the pro-democracy grassroots since their help was needed.
But the defeats also show that the dominance of AIPAC has to a large extent depended on the absence of the American public. The majority of Americans has too many concerns and is too distracted to focus consistently on foreign policy matters, giving a small, but focused minority the ability to dominate these issues. Until, that is, the larger public wakes up and gets in the game.
AIPAC of course remains an immensely powerful organization, but these recent defeats go beyond these specific issues. The real loss AIPAC has suffered is that the illusion of its invincibility has been shattered. Much of its power has lied in the (false) belief that it is invincible. This illusion provided AIPAC with tremendous deterrence — convinced that they would lose, most groups simply did not bother to go up against AIPAC. Consequently, AIPAC won most of its battles on walk-over. That may change now.
The next showdown is only months away. Having lost the sanctions vote, AIPAC is shifting its focus to the final stage negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Its second path for collapsing the talks is to push for a non-starter final agreement — a return to the Bush administration’s policy of a complete dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear program and zero enrichment. This would cause the Iranians to walk away from the table. In fact, the interim deal already makes clear that Iran will have enrichment on its soil at the end of the final deal. Once again, AIPAC’s demands violate the previous agreement. It seeks to renegotiate everything Obama already has painstakingly settled with Iran.
It remains to be seen if it can win that battle and collapse the talks. But its recent failure shows that the outcome is far from predetermined. It all depends on the American public and the intensity of their desire to avoid war with Iran.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview the other day, “Once the Palestinian problem is solved the conditions for an Iranian recognition of Israel will be possible.” Set aside for the moment the fact that Zarif was addressing only one-half of a process and left open the question of what it would take for an Israeli recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which may be the more problematic part of the equation. Note how the mere possibility of the Islamic Republic recognizing the State of Israel is a universe apart from so much of what is continually said about Iran, especially said by the government of Israel. You know—all that rhetoric about how Iran is supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel and so forth.
They are a universe apart because the rhetoric is mistaken and Zarif’s comment is an unexceptional reflection of history and of actual Iranian interests. There should be nothing surprising about his remark, and nothing surprising about it while taking it as an honest and direct expression of Iranian intentions. Amid today’s rancor it is easy to forget the substantial history of Israeli-Iranian cooperation. That history included not only the time of the shah but also the early years of the Islamic republic, when Israel was providing logistical and training assistance to Iran and urging the United States to tilt toward Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.
A fundamental basis for cooperation back then, as it would be now and in the future, is the status of Israel and Iran (along with Turkey) as important non-Arab states in a predominantly Arab region. They share concerns about some of the same threats and adversaries, including some adversaries of the violent extremist sort. Being estranged from each other is a missed opportunity for Israel as well as for Iran. It represents part of the cost that Israel incurs as long as its government swears eternal hostility against Iran.
Two hurdles in particular need to be cleared to get any closer to an end to the estrangement. One is completion of a negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, partly because of how that issue has overshadowed everything else in many relationships with Iran. A nuclear deal would open the door to an improved U.S. relationship with Iran, and it is hard to imagine Israeli-Iranian relations getting ahead of U.S.-Iranian relations. It also is hard to imagine any Iranian leader moving toward normal relations with a government that is repeatedly threatening Iran with military attack.
The other hurdle is exactly the one Zarif identified: resolution of the Palestinian problem. As long as that problem is unresolved, any Iranian government will be quite vocal in criticizing Israel’s policies and its continued occupation. It will be so partly because of genuine sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians and partly because of how strongly the issue plays with Arab and Muslim audiences.
One might also think substantial improvement in Israeli-Iranian relations would also require substantial change in the government of Israel. But perhaps resolution of the Palestinian problem would presuppose such change anyway.
Maybe all of this is a pipe dream as long as Israel has a government that doesn’t want anyone to have any sort of relationship with Iran. Right now we have a sort of perverse symmetry: an Iranian leader says solving the Palestinian problem will lead to improved relations with Iran, while Israeli leaders promote awful relations with Iran partly to take attention away from the unsolved Palestinian problem.